Over the past few months I have from time to time worked with double bassists Leon Bosch as he was preparing for recordings. From my student days I knew of Leon Bosch and it was with real excitement that I met up with him for these sessions. Very soon, however, it was clear to me that he was on top of being a virtuoso double bassist also a philosopher and inspiring musician. I therefore thought that I just had to interview him for my blog.
Nico de Villiers: How did you come to play music and where did you start your training?
LB: I was of course born in South Africa, where I spent the first 19/20 years of my life, but was really luck to have been introduced to the language of music by my parents, who believed that our education should amount to far more than just learning to read, write and add up, the proverbial three Rs.
My parents, despite limited financial means, did everything in their power to enable us (I have a brother and two sisters) to sample some of the finer achievements of human civilisation, amongst which the sublime beauty of what we nowadays refer to as ‘Western’ or ‘classical’ music.
I began my musical training at primary school, receiving piano lessons from a very stern Mrs. Hans, who also happened to be my class teacher in the second year of school. My progress must have been reasonable, since I was then allowed to go on to have piano and cello lessons with an imperious and somewhat colonial Ms. Williams who came to the school once a week, to teach an assortment of instruments ranging from the piano through to the recorder, violin, viola and cello. Well that at least masqueraded as expert tuition, and must also have proved to be pretty lucrative, for her at least.
My parents, though not musicians themselves, or musical in the traditionally accepted sense, must have benefitted from astute judgement, since they quickly made alternative arrangements for us to receive tuition at the Saturday morning junior department of the University of Cape Town, which had a particularly excellent strings programme run by Noel Travers.
Noel Travers was not only a fabulous violinist, but also one of the most dedicated teachers I have had the privilege to know. Many of his ex-students now pursue successful careers throughout the world as soloists, leaders of string quartets and indeed leaders of orchestras. They, like me, really do have a lot to thank Noel for, and he could also be justifiably proud of their achievements, were he still with us.
I benefited from his almost immeasurable skill and patience in the orchestral programme that he presided over. I started off as a cellist in the D-Orchestra, but quickly progressed through the C, B and A-Orchestras to become the principal and only double bassist in the Archi Ensemble.
The Archi Ensemble really was quite revolutionary in concept and it provided the most thorough and enlightening musical education for those of us who were lucky enough to have participated in this project. To be chosen for membership of the Archi Ensemble was at the time akin to winning the lottery, and it is undeniably an experience that has proved to be the bedrock upon which my subsequent musical journey has been built.
NdV: The Double Bass has been referred to as an “endangered’ instrument. How is it that you chose this instrument?
LB: I didn’t choose the double bass, it came to find me.
Our partnership is a match made in heaven, and anyone who has seen or heard us together in public knows that the word ‘endangered’ does not feature in my vocabulary.
NdV: Do you play any other instruments?
LB: Not really.
Playing the double bass is my all consuming passion, but I do still harbor the secret ambition of being able to play, for my own enjoyment, the odd Scarlatti and Clementi Sonata, on the piano.
NdV: You have a keen interest in recording works by composers who are not necessarily the most well known. How do you decide who to record and where to start with a project?
LB: As a young child, and indeed throughout my student life, my relentless curiosity, and consequently penetrating questioning, invariably proved tiresome to those of my teachers, lecturers and professors who lacked the energy or desire to look for answers.
Thank goodness then for the small handful who patiently and selflessly encouraged me to look beyond the horizon.
Conventional wisdom, and by extension the standard repertoire, was never going to satisfy me, and every day of my life starts with a question, and the determination to search for something new.
The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “…Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail….” probably best describe my journey so far.
Stefano Sciascia, a good colleague of mine in Trieste, Italy, has nicknamed me the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ of the Double Bass and I have to admit that each successive musical clue that I uncover leads me to a place hitherto unimagined, but to be able to make meaningful connections between all these seemingly unrelated clues is a source of indescribable joy.
My recording project started out with the aim of recording the complete works of Bottesini, but soon began to metamorphose into something rather more organic, spontaneous and necessarily unpredictable too.
I have now, as you know, recorded discs of British, Hungarian and Russian music, as well as music by the South African composer Allan Stephenson, 20th Century Sonatas by Sprongl, Hindemith and Rankl, and music by the Catalan virtuosi, Pedro Valls and Josep Cervera.
What probably unifies all these projects though, is my sense of disquiet at the injustice of the often unjustified and sometimes unwitting neglect of the creative output of principled and devoted fellow human beings.
To right this wrong, is my mission in life.
In the case of my recording ‘The British Double Bass’, nine of the ten pieces on the disc, all composed by towering figures in 20th Century British music, had, inexplicably, never been recorded before. Every young bassist who is going to play Gordon Jacob’s Concerto for Double Bass for a grade exam for example, can now hear what the piece sounds like with an orchestra.
The Sonata Concertante by Karl Rankl (1898-1968), has likewise received scant, if any, attention since it was composed in 1957, and my recording is the first ever to be made not only of this Sonata, but also of the two Sonatas for double bass and piano by the Austrian composer Norbert Sprongl (1892-1983), which accompany it on the disc.
Pedro Valls (1865 – 1935) affectionately referred to as ‘The Spanish Bottesini’ has had to wait until now for his unique brand of bel canto, laced with traditional Spanish folk elements, to be heard, to any significant extent.
The most exciting discovery to date for me however, is the music of Josep Cervera (1883-1969) who was a prolific virtuoso and composer. Sixty-two of his compositions for the double bass have survived and it has been really invigorating to be in the vanguard of introducing his music to the world.
Each of my projects begins with the germ of an idea, probably seeded unconsciously, which then grows, and grows, until the urge to do something about realising it becomes overwhelming, and unbearable, at which point nothing can stop me.
The process of seeing a project through from conceptualisation to completion is fortunately a route I have travelled so frequently now, that it is almost safe to say that once I have decided that something is worth doing, it will happen, one way or another.
Amongst the projects which await my attention, is a disc of music by the great Italian virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, another of music by Polish composers, ‘The Latin American Double Bass’, the music of another Catalan virtuoso, Anton Torello, more music by Josep Cervera, concertos by Menotti, Vanhal, Hoffmeister, and Keyper, 21st century British music for double bass, the completion of my Bottesini project and much, much more.
When each respective project will reach the top of the pile, I have no idea, but new ideas will inevitably present themselves and vie for attention.
NdV: You have just recorded a disc of works by Josep Cervera for the Meridian Records label. What did you find most challenging about the music and the preparation for the recording?
LB: It really was a joy to prepare this music by Josep Cervera.
Getting to grips with music which is essentially unknown, and for which there is no performance tradition, is really akin to creating something from scratch, and learning Cervera’s music was no different.
The task of choosing 10 pieces from this veritable treasure trove of 62 manuscripts was probably the most challenging part of the process, and my solution was to take the relatively uncontroversial route of opting for pieces with familiar names; Elegía, Nocturno, Reverie, Tarantella, Berceuse, Romanza, Carnaval de Venecia with a smattering of more exotic ones like Cielo Gris, Recuerdo de Londres and Fascinación to underline for me the Catalan essence of the project.
My daunting but richly rewarding responsibility throughout, was to attempt to understand the message embodied in his music and to faithfully realise his intentions.
I had the good fortune of being able to perform all but one of the pieces prior to recording them, first in Zimbabwe, at the Harare International Festival of the Arts, and then in the United States of America, at the convention of The International Society of Bassists, and I am really happy to be able to tell you that both recitals were enthusiastically received and that the recording went well.
To be able to share this beautiful music with the world is a privilege, and I am convinced that Josep Cervera will soon take his place at the centre of the standard repertoire for the double bass, where it truly deserves to be.
NdV: The Josep Cervera recording will be the seventh recording in which the Vienna based pianist Sung-Suk Kang partners you. How long have you been working together now and how did your partnership begin?
LB: Sung-Suk and I first met during the early 1980’s, whilst we were both students at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
Our initial collaboration was particularly brief, but also extremely memorable, and extended to no more than a few competitions, which we won, and the performance, in 1984, of two pieces by Bottesini (Capriccio di Bravura and Fantasy Somnambula) in a showcase concert hosted by the RNCM’s principal at that time, Sir John Manduell.
Sung-Suk’s playing was absolutely exquisite, but that was the last I heard or saw of her. We both graduated immediately thereafter and went our separate ways.
I kept a tape cassette recording of the concert however, and Sung-Suk’s piano playing remained mesmering, however many times I listened to it over the years.
It wasn’t until 2006/7, more than 20 years later, when I was to record my first disc of Bottesini, that we rekindled our musical collaboration. Working together again, as mature artists, and after such a long interregnum, has been immensely thought provoking, stimulating, challenging and richly rewarding.
Sung-Suk is far more than just a musical partner to me; she is an inspiration, as well as being my musical conscience.
NdV: You perform as a concerto soloist, chamber musician and recitalist. Which kind of performance do you prefer?
LB: Each musical genre presents its own unique challenges and delivers commensurately unique rewards.
I love performing concertos, recitals and chamber music in equal measure, with each addressing and satisfying a different need.
The idea of walking out on stage with nothing more than a double bass and bow in my hands, and pitting myself against the numerically superior forces of a whole orchestra really fired my youthful imagination, and I have to admit that I still hugely enjoy my concerto performances, even if the gladiatorial perspective no longer provides the sole source of inspiration.
It was after all the double bass that unleashed the performer in me, and bringing the double bass centre stage to showcase its expressive capabilities, whilst at the same sharing, through the medium of music, and with utter conviction, my unique view of the world, is something I cherish.
I was very fortunate to enjoy the friendship of Margot Krut, a very gifted pianist, whilst we were both students at The South African College of Music of The University of Cape Town. She would come to the bass room every day and we would and play, for hours on end, in an experimental and exploratory manner. The repertoire we learnt together remains seared into my soul, together with a vivid memory of all the interpretative possibilities we examined, those we abandoned and those we decided had merit and were worth pursuing.
Margot sadly died terribly prematurely in 1990, but her exacting standards of musicianship have continued to guide me throughout, and the quality I have sought in every duo partner since then has undoubtedly been that of fertile musical imagination.
Chamber music is a much more complex genre, since its successful performance demands, with multiple partipants/contributors, not only the highest levels of technical and musical accomplishment, but also critically, a unified musical vision and cohesive sense of purpose. The prowess of the individual participants has, instinctively and willingly, to be subordinated to the common good in order that something greater than the sum of the individual parts may be created.
My chamber music career began when I played with the Amadeus Quartet, before I had even left college, and I have been really very blessed to enjoy collaborations with so many exceptional musical partners, amongst whom the Lindsay String Quartet with whom I enjoyed a particularly inspiring relationship over a period of more than 20 years, until their retirement from the concert platform in 2005.
NdV: Can you sum up your philosophy of music?
LB: Yes, in the words of Louis Nizer:
“A man who works with his hands is a labourer; a man who works with his hands and brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”
This supreme musical aspiration requires therefore the relentless pursuit of technical mastery, intellectual understanding, and refined aesthetic judgement, all in equal measure.